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For innovation: Herd your black sheep

Cover of "The Incredibles [UMD for PSP]"

Cover of The Incredibles [UMD for PSP]

As you can discern from last week’s post about how not to drive a culture of innovation, as well as previous ones, I’m a big fan of “what not to do’s”. Well, in contrast to those, what are the counters to those NOT’s?

Let’s take the topic of success leading to failure…

Success breeds complacency because it hides problems, which eventually leads to failure. When success hides problems, what do you do?

You don’t repeat the same formula that worked for you before. Instead, you shake things up as Pixar’s Brad Bird did when taking on The Incredibles.

A few years ago, The McKinsey Quaterly asked: what does stimulating the creativity of animators have in common with developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs? Apparently, a lot.

In Innovation lessons from Pixar, McKinsey writes:

Brad Bird makes his living fostering creativity. Academy Award-winning director (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) talks about the importance, in his work, of pushing teams beyond their comfort zones, encouraging dissent, and building morale. He also explained the value of “black sheep”—restless contributors with unconventional ideas.

Steve Jobs hired him, says Bird, because after three successes (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2) he was worried Pixar might struggle to stay innovative. Jobs told him: “The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency—feeling like we have it all figured out,” Bird quotes his boss as saying “…We want you to come shake things up.” Bird explains to McKinsey how he did it — and why, for “imagination-based companies to succeed in the long run, making money can’t be the focus.”

So, how did he shake things up? One point he touched on is to Herd your black sheep:

Brad Bird: I said, “Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well. We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here.

Though the interview is from 2008, I recommend you read it because it holds other valuable lessons for fostering innovation within any organization.

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